It's 7:30 a.m. and Steve McKay is sifting through last year's weather, plot-history and soil-sample records. He's pulling up data that will help him map out this year's 77 research plots at Cornell's Homer C. Thompson Vegetable Research Farm in Freeville, N.Y. McKay, farm manager at the research farm, is gearing up for spring.
Before him, he's got a binder full of plot requests from faculty studying everything from late blight on potatoes to low-till weed management in organic sweet corn. To his side are the quotes on the aluminum welder he'll use for fixing the eight miles of irrigation pipe on the farm. With the price of aluminum right now," McKay says, "that piece of equipment will pay for itself just in repairs we do this year."
Less than 1 percent needs fixing this year. Better than hauling it to the dump. That's sustainability: Recycle, reuse, repair. And save money.
Outside his door, McKay's crew is revving up one of the farm's 18 tractors. On their to-do list: Change teeth and worn points on plows, discs and harrows -- 11 altogether; clean and lube eight seeders and planters; sharpen blades and choppers on eight mower decks; overhaul sprayer-boom solenoids and replace the filters ... and so on. Even in winter there's lots to do.
"You want to know what my spring is like?" McKay asks.
Named for the professor who, while at Cornell (1918-51), began the country's first Ph.D. program in vegetable crops, the Thompson farm supports research in such departments as entomology, horticulture, plant breeding, crop and soil sciences, and biological and environmental engineering in Cornell's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Its 110 arable acres, including 35 acres in organic production, is one of seven Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station research farms and plant-growth facilities scattered across New York. Scientists working at the farm fine-tune best practices for growing dozens of crops, many of them top-10 commodities, grown on nearly 70,000 acres statewide and worth $409 million in 2010.
A major focus of farm research is on sustainable systems approaches -- "on how rotations, cover crops, fertility management, minimum tillage and similar environmentally friendly tactics increase yields while maintaining healthy soils for both conventional and organic growers," says McKay.
For example, Professor Anu Rangarajan tests and refines ways small farmers using new "zone tillage" can cut labor and fuel costs by 25 percent to 70 percent. For starters, only actual planting rows are tilled. From turning the soil and breaking deep compacted layers to busting up clods and building planting mounds, zone tillers do it in just one pass -- and farmers can even build one themselves.
Growers, crop consultants and industry reps from around New York and even internationally come to Freeville for field days and open houses. They come for the demos, tours and to learn the latest in groundbreaking research. The farm also hosts professors and their graduate and undergrad students from the Ithaca and Geneva campuses.
"We had the most class visits ever this past year," says McKay. The students come for real-world experience in weed, pathogen and insect ID; hands-on experience with tools and equipment and how complex systems fit together to produce the healthiest, best-yielding crops under wildly varying conditions.
Some of those students help work the research plots and with planting, treatments and harvest during summers.
As for its harvest -- in 2010 the farm passed the cumulative 1 million mark in pounds when it donated truckloads of produce from research plots to local area food banks.
Freeville also feeds Cornell's rising appetite for local produce. The farm produces squash, potatoes, corn and other vegetables for Cornell Dining's fall menus at the request of campus chefs for locally sourced produce.
Mary Woodsen is a science writer with the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station.